NGO assists KZN Department of Health to clean up hospitals

21 August 2001 – groundWork, a local NGO, has linked up with a US based organisation Essential Action to assist the Department of Health in solving the ongoing problems associated with medical waste handling and disposal in hospitals in KZN. Both NGOs are members of the international network Health Care Without Harm.

Common problems experienced around medical waste in the province include illegal dumping of medical waste in open plots and rivers, flushing of medical waste down toilets, very outdated and rundown incinerators, and air pollution.

Over the next two weeks, groundWork, together with two US medical waste experts, Neil Tangri and Glenn McRae, will be visiting selected hospitals in the province as well as meeting with provincial and national government officials. Working together with hospital staff, they will initiate programs on waste minimisation, toxics reduction, safe handling and treatment of medical waste. These visits are part of an ongoing training program for hospital and NGO staff. Initially, the focus will be on the Edendale (Pietermaritzburg) and Ngwelezane (Empangeni) hospitals. This will be followed by a roll out campaign in other hospitals.

The KZN Secretary of Health, Prof. Ronald Green-Thompson, has given his support and go-ahead. “Effective, efficient and safe medical waste management and disposal is very important. Our Department is committed to ensure that our medical waste is correctly handled. We are very encouraged by the efforts of groundWork to enhance capacity building within the Department. We are certain this initiative will make a difference and we wish to record our appreciation and thanks to groundWork”, said Green-Thompson.

"Those at most risk from mishandling of medical waste are the hospital personnel themselves," said Llewellyn Leonard of groundWork. "However, in addition to safeguarding the workers and patients, we need to protect communities from the potential hazards of medical waste."

One such hazard is the incineration of medical waste. Approximately 4500 tons of medical waste is generated annually in KZN. Most of this waste is incinerated, although there is not a single incinerator in this province which is able to meet the health and safety requirements of the law.

Medical waste incinerators release as many as 190 chemicals into the environment. Many of these chemicals are very toxic and are associated with a variety of health effects including cancers, reproductive problems, reduced sperm count, still-births, decreased size of male genitalia, learning and developmental problems in children, and many more.

"Many countries - from the U.S. to the Philippines - are replacing incinerators with safer and cheaper technologies, such as autoclaves or microwaves. Without a market for incinerators in the west, U.S. companies are looking to dump their obsolete technologies in Africa," said Tangri.

Medical waste incineration is such a problematic technology that it was specifically addressed in the recently-signed Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The Convention obliges nations to use alternate forms of technology which do not release toxic chemicals to the environment.

The KZN MEC for Environment, Narend Singh, recently stated that there was a need to move away from incineration and to source more advanced methods of disposing of medical waste.

For more information and/or photographs please contact:
Bobby Peek, Llewellyn Leonard (groundWork) or Neil Tangri (HCWH) on 033-342 5662 or 082 464 1383.


Health Care Without Harm is an international network of medical practioners, nurses, environmental and health organisations that are committed to eliminating the pollution in health care practises without compromising safety or care.